One of my favorite scenes in “Middlemarch,” one of my favorite novels, is when Will Ladislaw, resolved to leave Middlemarch forever, comes to say goodbye to Dorothea. Recently widowed, she’s learned that the will of her husband, Edward Casaubon, contained a certain evil provision: that she would forfeit all his money if she were to marry Will, his young cousin. Casaubon jealously suspected Will of loving Dorothea (which he was right about, though wrong to think anything had ever happened between them). In a classic case of unintended consequences, the codicil was the first clue to the intelligent yet naive Dorothea that Will might love her.
In this conversation, she’s assuming that Will knows about the codicil too — for it seems to her in her shame that EVERYONE must know. But he doesn’t; he only knows something has happened. Dorothea’s manner, when she greets him, is constrained, and he has felt people are looking at him oddly in town, as if they suspect him of being an adventurer seeking to marry a rich widow.
“You approve of my going away for years, then, and never coming here again till I have made myself of some mark in the world? ” said Will, trying hard to reconcile the utmost pride with the utmost effort to get an expression of strong feeling from Dorothea.
(Notice how there is always something slightly ridiculous about Will, even in solemn moments like this. He’s always trying hard to seem more dignified than he actually is, and I love this about him.)
She was not aware how long it was before she answered. She had turned her head and was looking out of the window on the rose-bushes, which seemed to have in them the summers of all the years when Will would be away. This was not judicious behavior. But Dorothea never thought of studying her manners: she thought only of bowing to a sad necessity which divided her from Will. Those first words of his about his intentions had seemed to make everything clear to her: he knew, she supposed, all about Mr. Casaubon’s final conduct in relation to him, and it had come to him with the same sort of shock as to herself. He had never felt more than friendship for her — had never had anything in his mind to justify what she felt to be her husband’s outrage on the feelings of both: and that friendship he still felt. Something which may be called an inward silent sob had gone on in Dorothea before she said with a pure voice, just trembling in the last words as if only from its liquid flexibility —
“Yes, it must be right for you to do as you say. I shall be very happy when I hear that you have made your value felt. But you must have patience. It will perhaps be a long while.”
Both are full of things they cannot say; there is a subtext to everything they do say. Ladislaw doesn’t know about the will; Dorothea doesn’t understand that he actually does love her. Dorothea, ever since she learned of the circumstances under which Ladislaw’s mother was disinherited, has felt that half of Casaubon’s property should rightfully go to Will, an idea that has never occurred to him but has long preyed on her. They are both aware of the deep social divide between them, which matters to neither of them, yet seems impossible to overcome. It’s like Eliot has put the entire 19th-century British class structure in the room with them here. It’s so restrained and yet full of feeling. And then, the one sentence that sums the thing up perfectly:
She had turned her head and was looking out of the window on the rose-bushes, which seemed to have in them the summers of all the years when Will would be away.
That she looks out the window, at plants: the theme of confinement is recurring yet always subtle, and the artificiality of the world Dorothea finds herself in is often conveyed by contrast with the natural one. Rose-bushes, decorative but useless, stuck in one place, seem a mocking counterpart to Dorothea herself; exactly what she did not want to become, and has. Flowers typically stand in for everything that’s fleeting in life; here they cleverly exemplify the opposite: an endless stretch of time filled with nothing you want, and everything you don’t. Eliot is extremely good at the selective detail that conveys an entire train of thought, and never better than here. In Dorothea’s long look at the rose-bushes we understand that her entire future life has flashed before her, and it’s empty. She sees she will never get what she wants, and there is not a damn thing she can do about it.